The Chain Gang

Want to change the world? Get out of your car and onto a bike.

I was late for Critical Mass on June 28, so I went looking for it, which turned out to be a little like finding my dad in the supermarket. I knew that I could move faster than my target--a group of more than a hundred people on bicycles, snaking through the city on an improvised path. But that still left me to check every aisle of the urban grid, and on my own set of pedals.

After an hour, I spotted a cop walking out of a Subway on East Lake Street, near the river, and stopped to ask him if he knew where the bicycle protest might be. "Lake and Portland," he said, getting into his car. Then he shouted after me, "Wait, they just went north on Chicago."

Soon I caught up with the whirring mass on Lyndale and began pedaling along with the usual mix of "Massers": racers lying low on recumbent cycles, anarchists hoisting the Jolly Roger on "high" bikes, a little girl on a banana seat. In Mozambique, people riding bicycles are said to have jinga, a way of moving in style. But everyone's jinga is different in this conflux: the couriers, who kept Mass going through the slush season, were stretched and measured; the BMX kids, who presumably know a good thing when it passes their doorstep, were tight and rapid.

What always strikes me about this parade is its quiet, a gap in rush-hour racket that absorbs even the clink of chains, the shouts to passersby. The effect might explain why participants prefer to joke with--rather than preach at--people they pass. On a previous ride, when the cyclists glided past a man looking under the hood of his overheated sedan, one rider couldn't resist yelling: "Time to get a bike!"

That's about as didactic as this roving protest gets. Though against automobile traffic in both the physical and philosophical sense, Critical Mass is a ride first and foremost, an exercise in guerrilla leisure conceived ten years ago in San Francisco and duplicated across the planet, from Tel Aviv to Sydney. The name was lifted from Ted White's 1992 documentary Return of the Scorcher, in which one interviewee described the bike buildup and spontaneous group forays across the busy intersections of Beijing as "critical mass."

Now a local variant occurs on the last Friday of every month, kicking off at around 5:00 p.m. in Loring Park. None of the riders I talked to is sure exactly when the idea was set in motion here, but everyone knows the movement shifted into high gear in 1997, when hundreds of cyclists poured onto Nicollet Mall to defy a bicycle ban. Since then, a core of 30 to 40 riders has stuck it out. In recent months, however, Minnesota Critical Mass has seen an attendance spike, with an average of 100 participants--making it one of the largest events of its kind in the country. And the ride is drawing newcomers by the score.

"It's an exhilarating feeling to ride on some of the streets where we're most vulnerable and feel absolutely safe," says Jason Goray, a Web developer who joined the Mass in April. "I never realized how much tension I carry around when I ride; the feeling that a car could take you out at any point."

This exorcism inevitably backs up traffic and irritates weary motorists, but Goray doesn't like the word protest. Like many riders, he believes the movement's civilly disobedient slogan--"We are not blocking traffic. We are traffic"--is an assertion, not a dare. And during the June Mass, most onlookers expressed amusement when, in the intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue South, riders stopped, dismounted, and held up their bicycles like Cro-Magnon brandishing hunted elk.

This signature gesture struck an old chord in me. When I first saw it, in April, I was transported to a bike ride I took eight years ago while living in New Orleans. I had stopped at a red light in the Treme neighborhood, and a sports car pulled up behind me and honked. One-way traffic was rushing from the right, so there was nowhere to go. I ignored the driver. So he began moving forward, pushing me into traffic. Without thinking, I got down, grabbed the bicycle, and raised it above my head as if I were going toss it through his windshield.

You can get killed for that sort of thing in New Orleans, so I eventually stood down. He drove past, closely and slowly. A few blocks later, I recognized his car, parked in front of an abandoned church that I had heard was drug-dealer territory. In the middle of the street stood the driver with a few friends, apparently waiting for me. As I pedaled closer, I was shot through with fear and adrenaline.

"What I ought to do is wrap that bike around your neck," the driver said as I rode past.

Then the following words came out of my mouth: "I have as much right to be on the road as you."

What I did seems absurd now; there I was, a white boy addressing a group of black guys and invoking my "rights." But it caught them off guard. Their only response was silence.

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